Monday, August 18, 2014

#7 Most "Intellectual" RPG Owned - It's not the game, it's the setting #RPGaDAY

How does one define an "intellectual" game?

I never owned or played Mage: the Ascension, Ars Magica, In Nomine or Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth - all games known for being intellectual or, at least, pretentious.

Call of Cthulhu comes to mind as most player characters are intellectuals: academics, scientists and librarians. However, the game tends to push the characters (and sometimes players) to their emotional breaking points. Close, but it doesn't quite fit.

Jonathan Tweet's Everway system generates random results by interpreting draws from a tarot-like Fortune deck. Players "read" paintings in the game's Vision deck to create their character concepts.This has the potential for the most intellectual title. I'd like to see a game played while touring a museum, always interpreting the next piece of art whenever a random result is needed.

Ultimately, I don't think it is the system that is so intellectual so much as the campaign and setting. For that, I give the "most intellectual" award to a Traveller: 2300 AD inspired campaign played with GURPS rules I played back in 1994.
My character, Tachi, and some photocopied pages from the GURPS Space rule book. Even intellectual game characters need samurai swords.
The GM was an excellent world designer and the campaign made us take a hard look at a possible after-Earth, near-future humanity. There were no extreme technologies like hyperdrives and black hole guns. Most of the human diaspora lived in the colonies of the Moon, Mars, Titan and a few LaGrange Points after a poorly-understood cataclysm left the Earth uninhabitable. Our characters were troubleshooters in the largest human settlement: the interconnected Lunar colonies. The opaque, brown, toxic atmosphere obscuring the Earth above served as an ever-present reminder that mankind may never go home again.

The reason behind the Earth's catastrophe was never important. What we explored and focused on was how humanity and its culture changes moving forward in a post-Terran existence. Different societies perpetuated their respective cultures in pockets divided by their ancestral homelands, like ex-pat communities settling in Chinatowns, Japan Towns and Little Italys of major American cities. Those country origins of yore meant less and less with each generation as the true differences were between so-called Martians, Moonies, Titanians and the others.

For example, my character was Tachi, the tactician and weapons expert of the group and the only Mars native. Growing up in little over 1/3 of Earth's gravity, she was 6 feet tall and somewhat strong for a Martian. Compared to the Lunar natives who grew up in only 1/6 of Earth's gravity, she was very short and brawny! I was the "bruiser" of the party with an 11 Strength.

As someone who loves futurist books like Ben Bova's underappreciated The High Road, this game was easy to get into. The world was exotic yet familiar (bicycle was the common mode of transportation) and altogether plausible. This was a thoughtful campaign still punctuated by scenes of excitement and combat (often instigated by my character, ahem).

It was hard sci-fi at its best and it made us think.

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